I know it’s not a contest or anything, but I bet that when I began teaching language arts I had read fewer books of any kind than any other language arts teacher in the history of public education. I never liked reading as a kid, but I can vividly remember the first time I took my students down to our antique, two-sizes-too small library to check out books. With the signatures on my diploma still wet, I was excited to begin working with my students on all of the great teaching strategies that I had learned in college to improve their reading skills.
Once we got to the library the students mechanically slipped into a chair at one of the tables in the room to await further instructions. Eagerly I explained that they could pick any book they wanted to read; they didn’t have to read something just because I told them they had to. I guess I was thinking I would get a standing ovation from the students because I had just liberated them from the reading tyrants that had enslaved their whole educational career, making them read boring and uninteresting books. I was surprised when I received a series of moans and rolling of the eyes as students unenthusiastically got up to select a book.
As the students aimlessly roamed around the library I began to realize that they didn’t know what book they should pick. What’s worse is I realized I did not know what to encourage them to read. I, a non-reader myself, was a fraud. How could I recommend books when I hadn’t read any? Well, I’d read maybe 8 in junior high that I could tell them were great, or at least not half bad, but that was almost ten years ago. Would these students actually find those books interesting?
That day in the library, I had to swallow a huge horse pill of reality. My students, sauntering around the books, robotically picking up books to glance at their covers, pretending to find a book, and lying that they were actually going to read it were 8th grade duplicates of me! No wonder my students were giving me a slouching “OH NO,” instead of the standing ovation I thought I deserved.
Libraries are probably the scariest places in the world to any reluctant reader. Too many shelves. Too many books. Too many choices. I realized that as a teacher, and the one who should be inspiring a love of reading, I needed to do a lot more to get books in kids hands than take them for a stroll through the library.
I became a reader. Of course, I did not become a bibliophile over night. I started by having my book-loving librarian mom help me out, I subscribed to several blogs that reviewed young adult literature and started following authors on Twitter. Finally, I started to read, not so much out of desire because I suddenly love it, but out of a need to be able to talk about books with my students.
Now, I read so much it is hard to keep track. It’s hard, and I am proud of it. My personal reading experiences are single-handedly the most important tool I have to encourage students to read.
Teachers must read the books they hope to get their students reading. So take that trip to the library; browse the YA section, and get to it.
A reformed reluctant reader, Heather Cato is an instructional coach with several years of experience as a middle school language arts teacher. She was named the 2012 Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts Middle School Teacher of the Year and can be frequently found striking up conversations about books with unsuspecting teenagers at the local bookstore. A Teacher Consultant for the National Writing Project, you can find her on Twitter @heathercato or on her blog http://www.ThreeTeachersTalk.com